Keeping Traditions Leads to American Dream

Times Staff Writer

Yuji Kawana watched as a conveyor belt carried row after row of bright pink-and-white fish cakes shaped like smooth, split logs into a massive steamer.

Like his grandfather and father, Kawana makes kamaboko. For more than six decades, his family has satisfied what was once a craving unique to Japanese immigrants for the rubbery cakes made from a fish paste called surimi.

“Eating fish cake was just part of their daily diet,” Kawana, 37, general manager of Yamasa Enterprises, said of his company’s early customers. “It was like having a piece of ham or turkey. It was something they had to have.”

Kawana runs one of the more than 70 Japanese American-owned businesses from seven states that were honored Saturday by the Japanese American National Museum during a dinner at the Century Plaza Hotel. Each of the companies has thrived for at least three generations. They range from a tofu factory in Portland, Ore., to a Los Angeles mortuary.


“It’s especially noteworthy in places like California, where many families lost their businesses as a result of their incarceration” during World War II, said Irene Hirano, president of the Japanese American National Museum. “Many of us would not have imagined that families would restart their businesses.”

Some that did played a key role in helping Japanese immigrants in their new country by providing them with goods and services familiar in their native land. As they helped sustain Japanese traditions, some owners managed to realize their American dreams.

Kawana’s father, Frank, 69, for example, used his kamaboko-making skills to manufacture the imitation crab that helped popularize the California sushi roll.

There were missteps along the way, however. Frank Kawana’s stab at using surimi in the 1960s to make “sea-loni” and “sea-lami” -- seafood versions of baloney and salami -- flopped. “I don’t think I sold a single pound,” he recalled.

“My dad was ahead of his time,” Yuji Kawana added. “Those products would probably sell now to a Whole Foods or a similar market if we were to make them today.”

Kamaboko remains the cornerstone of the family business, although consumption of the cakes among Japanese Americans has declined as people have become more assimilated. The product has gained new popularity among Korean, Chinese and Vietnamese consumers, however.

Before World War II, there were nine kamaboko factories in Southern California, according to Frank Kawana, whose parents, Otoichi and Kume Kawana, founded the family business in 1938. After the war, he said, only two firms, including his dad’s and another that relocated from Fresno, resumed making fish cakes in the area.

More than anything, however, Otoichi Kawana wanted to invent something with broad appeal. The family dream was realized during the late 1970s when Frank Kawana tried making his own version of a new Japanese seafood product.


He applied the technique used to make kamaboko to manufacture imitation crab meat, and within three years the operation had moved to a 35,000-square-foot factory that ran 24 hours a day.

“My grandfather had this dream for making things that all American people would eat,” Yuji Kawana said. “So it was truly an American dream come true. But unfortunately he could not see it to the end.”

Another business that continues to fill a special niche for Southern California’s Japanese American community is the Fukui Mortuary in downtown Los Angeles. Gerald Fukui, 50, president of his family’s firm, recalled how his great-grandfather and two partners took over an existing mortuary that he estimates came to bear his family’s name sometime in the 1920s.

A sense of tradition, according to Fukui, draws customers from as far away as San Diego and Ventura.


“It is what their family has done for generations,” he said. “We are more aware of a lot of the idiosyncrasies of a Japanese ceremony.”

Common practices among Japanese Americans include serving funeral attendees a meal following a service known as the “otoki” and submitting a funeral notice to the Rafu Shimpo, a Los Angeles-based Japanese American newspaper.

Bestowing manju, bean-filled pastries, on funeral attendees or sending them books of stamps in thank-you cards is another tradition. Others include setting aside a lock of hair to be placed in the family plot in Japan and taking pictures of the decedent to send to relatives in Japan who were unable to attend the funeral.

Fukui has helped customers practice the traditions for 32 years. But as Japanese Americans marry people of other backgrounds, he said, they have become more likely to use mainstream mortuaries.


Whether he and his sister will one day hand over their family’s business to their children remains unclear.

Fukui believes there will always be customers in search of the services his family business offers.

“You’ll always have your new Japanese coming in and the old Japanese coming back,” he said.